MEET NICOLE O'CALLAGHAN, FOUNDER OF HOPE HEALTH
When you meet the thriving multi-company director, mother and mental Health First Aid trainer that is Nicola O'Callaghan, you would be forgiven for thinking she had led the perfect life. After all, everything about her is beautifully put together, but Nicole is one of those few brave and fearless souls who wears her vulnerability right on her sleeve. A warrior princess of the highest order, Nicole looks her audience right in the eye and shares her (very) personal journey, which almost ended in the loss of her life to Suicide.
A solid example of surviving to thriving, Nicole worked through her experiences and now dedicates her life to training others to spot the signs and symptoms of declining mental health and approaching the conversation on how to signpost to get the required help. Working on a corporate level with her company Hope Health, Nicole impacts thousands of lives, breaking down the stigma and making asking help not only accessible but as natural as approaching physical health in the workplace.
Rarely have I come across someone as courageous and pioneering as Nicole, and even more so during Mental Health Awareness Month, I am very proud to be able to bring her story to you. Over to you, Nicole...
SO, NICOLE, WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
Oh gosh, where to start! I have been on quite a journey. Firstly a warning though. My story does include the mention of Suicide. If this story is triggering for anyone or, if you need support with your mental health, please reach out to someone who can help (A GP or the samaritans 116 123)
As a young person, I was always determined, driven, confident and full of life. Nothing could have stood in my way, and I felt my dreams were always within reach. If I set my mind to something, I would go and get it.
I worked hard at school, the sixth form and finally, University, leaving with a BA Honors in Business Studies. I was a miss England Finalist, and straight out of University, I landed myself a cool job with a celebrity photographer. I travelled worldwide to assist on photo shoots and got to go to some unreal celebrity parties. I then nailed a career in Marketing for a global radio station and presented the traffic and travel on the lunchtime show.
On the outside, everyone thought I had it all figured out, and I was living the dream. On the inside, I was struggling and had been for many years.
When I was 17, I started to experience flashbacks of childhood trauma I had experienced. I have since learnt that I was experiencing PTSD. The brain has a very clever way of hiding memories of the trauma to protect one from the emotional/physical pain at the time. This is called disassociation/detachment from reality. I was nine years old when this trauma started, and at 17, my brain started to release these suppressed memories via flashbacks, and the pain returned. At the time, it was extremely overwhelming and scary.
I was taking my A-Levels, which was a stressful situation in itself, and then started my degree at The University of Hertfordshire. I just kept trying to suppress all these memories and pain that kept returning in more continuous waves. I adopted a set of unhelpful coping strategies that would continue to serve me into my early 20s. I would overwork, over-worry, over-achieve in all parts of my life to mask this turmoil and fight off the painful memories. I began to experience intrusive suicidal thoughts and feelings. I would punish myself by not eating, sleeping and rejecting loving relationships I had around me. I became less and less resilient to life, and that young person who was determined, driven, confident and full of life gradually started to disappear.
My mood and self-esteem hit rock bottom, and my poor soul and spirit were nowhere to be found. I spent ten years (a whole decade!) on this mental health merry-go-round. In that time I had my first child (Sydney) and decided to have a second. I went on to lose that child in a late miscarriage and my best friend to a brain tumour, all in the space of 6 months.
These major life events under "normal" circumstances would pose a potential risk to anyone's mental health, but my resilience to be able to bounce back from these situations had depleted due to the untreated and undiagnosed PTSD and prolonged decline in my mental health. On 18th March 2009, I reached a crisis point. I felt that I could not go on and that the only way to end my pain and suffering was not to be here anymore. I was exhausted and burnt out. I decided to take my life that day.
I was fortunate to be given another chance at life, and with the support of mental health professionals, my family and my friends, I was able to begin to recover and heal. In 2009 I started this journey to recovery and improved my quality of life once and for all. It took a tremendous amount of time and commitment. But I did it, and I'm now grateful for my desperate episode and the events before this day. Through therapy, I was able to heal from the trauma I had experienced as a child, and I started to rebuild and rediscover myself through the tools and strategies I sought out, through research, reading and a lot of trial and error!
I went on to have another two children (Isabella & Cooper), grow two successful businesses and am more motivated, happy and resilient than I have ever been. Don't get me wrong, I have my share of down days, but I now have the tools and strategies to overcome them quickly and move on. I wish I had learnt all of this earlier on in my life. After I created this change within myself, I had others asking for my help and advice. I was like a magnet to people's life challenges that they wanted to overcome. I felt incredibly blessed and honoured that they came to me for advice. It was then I had my light bulb moment. I needed to share what I had learnt and help others.
I had to go to different therapists, groups and seminars to learn how to protect my mental health, be resilient, be mindful and create wellness. I had to research and try different nutritional diets to boost my mood, read hundreds of self-help books and invested another ten years of my life in working it all out. I realised at this very moment that I could pay this all forward in some way and help others protect their mental wellbeing, break down the stigma around mental health and educate people about the signs and symptoms of poor mental so they can seek help sooner. So I retrained as a Mental Health First Aid Instructor, DBT therapist and founded Hope Health, a company that provides Mental Health First Aid Training and Corporate Wellbeing Programs. I believe everyone should be able to live the life they want and be the happiest person they know!
YOU EXPLAIN HOW YOU 'WORE A MASK' FOR SO MANY YEARS WHEN INSIDE YOU WERE REALLY STRUGGLING. WHAT WOULD YOUR ADVICE BE TO ANY OF OUR READERS WHO CAN RESONATE WITH THIS (THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SURVIVING AND THRIVING)?
Yes, I became really good at pulling my mask out of my handbag when I struggled inside. If I let my mask slip, I believed I would be seen as weak or unable to cope/not good enough. Now I know that it's ok not to be ok. We all have mental health, and it can change over time and depending on situations just like our physical health can. Even despite mental illness, so many of us accept our stressful situations, live with chronic stress, worry, exhaustion, emptiness, anxiety and low mood and assume that it is the price we have to pay to keep our lives on track or the sacrifice we have to make to be successful or show everyone we are doing ok! When I was in recovery, I was able to understand that I had been surviving all of this time instead of thriving. I had been remaining alive, existing, carrying on despite hardship and a lot of the time, I felt like I was on autopilot.
When I started proactively working on my mental health & wellbeing, I understood what thriving was. Life felt right, and I was excited to be alive, to be a human being. I felt resilient, solid and confident. I didn't need the mask because finally, I felt good on the inside and the outside. Good mental health is an asset that helps us to thrive in life. Our mental health affects how we think, feel, and behave to enjoy life and deal with the challenges that life presents us with.
My advice is:
1. Have a proactive approach to looking after your mental health, just like you do with physical health. We don't think twice about looking after our bodies on a day-to-day basis. We brush our teeth, moisturise, book haircuts, see the doctor if we feel ill, go to the optician, visit the dentist. We might go to the gym or talk to our friends about our physical health. It's essential to take the same approach with our mental health.
2. Pay attention and be aware of any changes in your mental health and signs that you may be surviving rather than thriving. Surviving is getting through each day, ignoring tiredness and powering through. If that's how life feels, then know that it doesn't have to feel like that. Be more in tune with your body and mind, and if something is serving you and helping you thrive, swap it out for something that does.
3. Self-care. You are the most crucial person in your life! If we do not take care of ourselves, how are we expected to take care of all of the things we are engaged with? I started by having a regular happiness hour once a week. An hour of guilt-free time for ME! I have since gone on to take a mini holiday/retreat from my life. It's so important if I want to be the best mum I can be to my brood and the best leader I can be to my team. It helps me stay in that thriving zone. And let's keep it real here... there will be days when we do just survive. On some of my most chaotic days with three children, two businesses, two horses and a household to run, I sit down at the end of the day and feel like I have just about made it through that day. That is entirely ok too! It's when we are spending more days in survival mode that we need to pay attention. So more thriving, and less surviving.
Maya Angelou said: "My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style."
HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN MENTAL HEALTH FIRST AID TO PEOPLE? AND WHAT ARE THE MAIN BENEFITS AND WHY THIS WORK IS SO IMPORTANT TO YOU?
A mental health first aider has a similar role as a physical first aider. They provide support and comfort to someone who may be experiencing or developing a mental health issue or if someone is in a crisis. I train people how to:
- Spot the signs and symptoms
- Strike up a conversation with someone they are concerned about
- Signpost that person to get the help they require
It made complete sense to me as we all have mental health just like we have physical health. Suppose there is a physical health situation in the workplace. In that case, you will find multiple physical first-aiders trained to support and comfort that person or get them the professional help they need, whether that be a GP or ambulance. But where are all the mental health first aiders? I genuinely believe that had there been mental health first aiders at my school, University, workplace, or even if one of my friends/family were trained in these skills, then I would have got the help I needed a lot sooner, and things may not have escalated to that crisis point.
I spent a decade battling with my mental health and could have lost my life to Suicide. No life should be lost to Suicide. We aim to train 1 in 10 people in mental health first aid skills to really be able to make a difference, break down the stigma that sadly still exists around Mental Health and bring the suicide rates down. I am also passionate about empowering individuals to protect their mental well-being. I lacked the awareness that all was not well with my mental health. I could not spot the signs and symptoms in myself and brushed it off as "everyone must feel like this" or "maybe it will just go away". Through mental health awareness training and well-being engagement programs, we teach adults and young people how to look after their mental well-being just as they would their physical well-being.
HOW DO YOU HANDLE CRITICISM?
If you asked me this question 10 years ago, my answer would have been, "Badly". Criticism fed a core belief I had unconsciously developed and only discovered during CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy). I had a core belief that "I was not good enough". As a young adult, I worked tirelessly to be perfect, so I did not receive criticism and avoid this feeling of not being good enough. Everything in my life had to be just perfect, and I could never drop the ball!
Criticism then meant I was an awful person that should retreat to where she came from and hide away in shame. I have since reprogrammed that core belief to "I am enough, " which serves me so much better. I no longer take criticism personally and allow myself to make mistakes. I often remind my children that it's ok to make mistakes- that's why pencils have little rubbers on the end.
WHAT DO YOU PERSONALLY DO TO SUPPORT YOUR WORKPLACE WELLBEING?
I role model positive well-being by sharing my happiness hours with my team and encourage them to schedule a happiness hour in the work diary at least once a week. I have also been known to host a walking meeting. This is where I will have a virtual meeting with a team member whilst out walking.
I exercise in the morning as that sets me up for the day. I meal prep on a Sunday evening, so I have nutrient-rich meals in the freezer to get out each day. In the past, I would skip meals because I was too busy, but that was detrimental to my well-being. My days will always be busy with all of the commitments I have as well as keeping on top of my well-being, so I have to be innovative and organised to ensure I stay well.
I also have some very clear boundaries that I set myself for working- I track my hours via an app called clockify to see when I am doing too much physically. At times of stress, my coping strategy would be to overwork. This was highly unhelpful and often led to periods of burn out/low productivity. Knowing this is one of my unhelpful coping strategies is enough for me to notice when I am doing this and give myself a nudge to find a better coping strategy for dealing with my stress
YOU HAVE TRAINED HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE IN MENTAL HEALTH FIRST AID - DO YOU HAVE ANY SUCCESS STORIES OF HOW THESE SKILLS HAVE HELPED?
Two powerful stories stand out for me. One was a chap who contacted me two months after training, thanking me for the skills I had given him as he was able to spot signs that a colleague was struggling with his mental health and go on to save his life as he was contemplating taking his own life.
The second story was about a young man whose partner lived with a mental health condition for many years. We had just finished the module on how to listen and communicate without judgement. In this session, I teach the difference between empathy and sympathy and how to listen actively. This part of the course is usually quite a lightbulb moment as many start to understand that the listening skills they have may be driving disconnection. They may try to fix things for the person or try to silver line things to make that person feel better. Sometimes all someone wants you to do is listen. Just hold that safe space and listen. Anyway, this chap had always been in the sympathy camp with his partner. He would offer alternatives (try to fix it) or throw some silver linings out there. This was often met with "you don't understand!" After this session, he went home, and his partner was in distress. He decided he would sit there and just listen. Without judgement and adopting all of the skills I had taught him in that session. The result? His partner said that she had never felt so supported, heard or understood. He told me this the morning after and was so delighted that he had experienced this breakthrough with his partner.
When I started Hope Health, I said if I can help just one person, I would be a happy lady. Its stories like these that drive me and motivate me each day to carry on doing what I'm doing.
IF YOU WERE STRANDED ON A DESERT ISLAND, CASTAWAY STYLE, WHAT THREE THINGS WOULD YOU HAVE WITH YOU AND WHY?
I didn't even have to think about this one! Sydney, Isabella and Cooper. I cannot live without my children. They are my reason and my purpose in life! So being stranded on a desert island with them, the sun, sea and no hustle and bustle of life actually sounds perfect.
WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND DIFFICULT ON YOUR JOURNEY, AND WHAT WOULD YOU AVOID IF YOU COULD DO IT ALL AGAIN?
I do live by the motto "No regrets" because I believe that even the tough and challenging times are all opportunities I have grown from. I am grateful for the tough times as they have made me the woman I am today and have also guided me to help others in the work I do now.
I think the self-discovery part has been the most challenging part of my journey though. I spent a long time feeling very lost and uncertain about who I was and what I wanted from life. I didn't have a strong sense of self, and that led to chronic emptiness and restlessness. If I were to do it all again, I would have held on to that strong sense of self I had as a young person and ensure I never abandon myself to please other people.
WHAT’S YOUR TOP TIP FOR OUR AWESOME FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS READING THIS ARTICLE?
Have a WHY! Everyone needs a WHY in all we do but more so in business. When I worked out my WHY my whole business and life fell into place.
When I feel "off track", I refer back to my WHY and make sure it's aligned to the actions I'm taking with my business or life. If it's not, I make a tweak and reset.
Write it down and keep it somewhere you can look at from time to time. Your WHY needs to move you and be strong enough to keep you on track with your goals and ambitions. Running a business is not easy, and there are times when you may feel like throwing in the towel, or things are just not working out. However, if you have a strong enough WHY to look back on, it will remind you of the reason why you set out on this journey in the first place and keep you moving in the direction you intended.
WHAT TIPS WOULD YOU GIVE ORGANISATIONS LOOKING TO IMPROVE THEIR WORKPLACE WELLBEING AND HELP THEIR PEOPLE THRIVE?
Wise employers know that organisations perform better when staff are healthy, motivated and focused.
Research shows that when employees feel their work is meaningful and valued, and they feel supported, they tend to have higher well-being levels, be more committed to the organisation's goals, and perform better.
There is a strong relationship between levels of staff well-being and motivation and business performance.
My tips would be to create a well-being strategy that fits with the company values and what your employees want/need. There is no one size fits all approach, so it is about talking to your people and understanding what will help employee engagement. This can be done via focus groups, surveys or analysing existing data such as absenteeism, presenteeism, staff retention. It is then about creating that culture which can take time and needs to be consistent. Some practical tips include:
1. Promote Well-being - Get senior leaders involved to send a clear message that staff well-being matters. I've had clients where CEO's & MDs have spoken about their journey with mental health, and it has had a considerable impact. It could even be as simple as role modelling behaviour such as taking lunch breaks, working healthy hours and scheduling self-care in the company diary. Senior leaders and line managers play an essential role in setting the stage for that well-being culture.
2. Embed mental health into inductions and training – Ensure staff are given information on how mental health is managed and what support is available as part of their induction and ensure that skills-based training such as Mental Health First Aid or Mental Health Awareness is rolled out—empowering your employees to manage their well-being/mental health and also support one another.
3. Open up the conversation and break down the stigma- Invite a speaker on mental health to an event as part of activities for diversity, disability or mental health awareness. Hearing what it's like to have a mental health issue from people who've experienced the problems first hand can help break down negative stereotypes and encourage others to talk about their mental health.
WHICH FAVOURITE SONG WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO ADD TO THE FEMALE CEO'S #GIRLBOSS PLAYLIST ON SPOTIFY FOR YOU?
Broken and Beautiful by Kelly Clarkson!
She talks about how she doesn't need help or sympathy or for anyone to lower the bar for her. She knows she is superwoman, strong, phenomenal and enough! She's broken, and it's beautiful!!" Honestly, we girls have everything inside us to get through even the most challenging times and achieve everything we desire. We got this!
WHAT DO YOU KNOW FOR SURE?
That we can all do brave things and to have courage and be kind.
DO YOU HAVE A BOOK OR FAVOURITE PODCAST RECOMMENDATION FOR OUR FEMALE CEO MEMBERS?
"Unlocking us" by Brene Brown- it's honest and helps listeners feel comfortable with dropping that mask and keeping it real!
WHAT’S YOUR SUPERPOWER?
I was told that I have an emotional brain that can be hypersensitive to external stimuli. Having lived with this emotional brain all my life has taught me how to recognise emotions, regulate them and use them to propel myself forward productively. My emotions tell me when things are right and wrong and guide me to grow and learn.
In business, EI is a considerable asset. It has helped me influence, persuade, negotiate and lead. I can also recognise emotions in other people and pick up on the subtleties in how they are feeling, which helps me connect with people. It helps me understand situations from others' perspective, which means I end up cultivating relationships with a diverse range of people. This helps me with my job and my ability to understand, have genuine empathy and help others.
My mum always called me a "white witch" because she says it's like I can read someone's mind and know what they are thinking, but all I am doing is using my emotional intelligence to tune in to how they are feeling.
No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care" - Theodore Roosevelt
WHAT MAKES YOU TRULY HAPPY, AND HOW DO YOU HANDLE DOWNTIME?
Happiness for me is sunshine on my face, sand on my feet and the sound of the sea flowing in and out. My parents lived in Portugal when I was going through some of the most challenging times in my life, and I am a runner! So I would run to them in Portugal. The moment I stepped off the plane and smelt the warm air and Eucalyptus trees, I knew I was in my happy place, and I instantly relaxed and felt safe. I will retire there one day.
Knowing what makes us happy or what makes us unhappy can be life-changing in itself, but having a safe space to work out the tough times and find happiness is also invaluable.
I have to schedule downtime like I would schedule a meeting. Self-care is vital in protecting my mental health and something I set as homework during my mental health first aid training. I used to be bad at it. I thought that taking time for myself was selfish when I had so much more I should be doing. I know now that I am no good to anyone (my family, friends, patients, and business) if I haven't taken care of myself first.
Downtime for me is snuggling down in my bed with my Jo Malone candle on and a good book.